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In 1836 the Stirling Castle, commanded by Captain James Fraser, set sail from Sydney to Singapore with 18 crew and passengers, whose number included the captain's wife, Eliza. Some days later, as the ship threaded its way through the labyrinthine passages of the Great Barrier Reef, it holed itself on the coral and began slowly sinking. Passengers and crew bundled themselves into two lifeboats and set off down the coast toward a settlement at Moreton Bay (now Brisbane), hundreds of miles to the south. It was a harrowing journey, not least for Eliza, who reportedly was heavily pregnant at the time and wound up giving birth in the badly leaking longboat; the infant died shortly afterward.

Things grew worse for the embattled survivors in the longboat carrying Captain and Mrs. Fraser. As their flimsy craft grew more and more unseaworthy, the other boat abandoned them and sailed on. Finally, more than a month after the shipwreck, they were forced to beach themselves on what was then known as the Great Sandy Island.

What happened next is unclear. Some accounts say the survivors bartered with the Butchulla people, giving up their clothing in exchange for food. Others claim the Aborigines stripped the castaways naked and treated them as slaves. Either way, it seems likely that hunger, disease, and exhaustion finished off most of the survivors, including Captain Fraser.

For her part, Eliza later claimed that she had been forced to work as a drudge around the Aborigines' camp, gathering firewood and digging up roots. Word of her plight eventually reached the authorities at Moreton Bay. A rescue party was sent out, and an Irish convict named John Graham, who had previously lived in the bush as an escapee and who spoke the Aboriginal language, ultimately negotiated her release.

The rest of the story follows in the finest tabloid tradition. Within months of her rescue, Eliza met and married another sea captain, moved to England, and went on to become a sideshow attraction in London's Hyde Park. There she spun increasingly wild tales of murder, torture, white slavery, and cannibalism to spellbound audiences at sixpence a head.

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